A cannabis plant
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

‘Trying to find equilibrium’: County weighs in on weed-growing tussle with temporary license moratorium

Cannabis business owners say the 45-day freeze approved Tuesday by supervisors “is another curveball to people that are trying to do this correctly.” Meanwhile, families who live nearby cannabis cultivation say they worry about their children, about potential crime and the odor given off by marijuana, among other concerns.

Conflicts between homeowners and farmers are nothing new. But now, with cannabis in the agricultural mix and an increasing number of landowners wanting to grow marijuana, tensions are reaching new heights in Santa Cruz County.

Tuesday, after nearly two hours of public testimony, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to pass a temporary moratorium on the issuance of cannabis business licenses on commercial agriculture parcels that are within 500 feet of residential structures.

The moratorium — which will last 45 days as the board considers more permanent options — comes as the county attempts to strike a balance between homeowners and nearby agricultural growers.

“We’ve been trying to find equilibrium — we’re getting a lot closer,” Supervisor Zach Friend said during Tuesday’s meeting. Friend, who has pushed the moratorium, represents the county’s Second District, which includes Corralitos and other rural communities where much of the affected land is located.

He told Lookout via email that the measure is consistent with the board’s policy over the past seven years that cannabis “cultivation, dispensing and manufacturing should be outside of residentially zoned areas and minimize environmental impacts.” Friend said that, in his nine years on the board, he has never seen as much public input from residents on any topic other than the CZU fires.

Supporters of the ordinance — largely homeowners in Corralitos, La Selva Beach and Larkin Valley — cited concerns related to the safety of their children, potential criminal activity and the strong odor of cannabis, among other issues.

“We don’t want our kids looking into an enormous cannabis farm every day,” community members Rick and Jodi of La Selva Beach wrote in a statement.

Sheri Souza, a Corralitos community member, wrote, “We chose Corralitos to raise our family because of the slow pace and safe community atmosphere. There are people from all over the map now living and working here with no attachments to the land.”

Cannabis plants
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cannabis growers have united

More than 40 cannabis growers have united in opposition to the moratorium, according to Darren Story, an owner of regenerative cannabis farm Coastal Sun. They worry that, while this policy doesn’t affect already-licensed growers, it’s a step toward more restrictive policies on growers.

“At some point, you have to put your foot down,” Story told Lookout.

While the moratorium doesn’t affect any current licenses or renewals, 24 growers are currently in the licensing pipeline, and this moratorium puts that process on hold for them.

“We’re at the finish line of the project and ... the rug is about to be pulled,” George Yorkman said at the meeting. Yorkman is the founder of Kola Seed, a Salinas-based cannabis company hoping to open a second facility in Watsonville. According to Yorkman, since the greenhouse facility is within 500 feet of houses, its license now hangs in limbo.

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“(The moratorium) is another curveball to people that are trying to do this correctly,” Yorkman told Lookout.

Growers said this moratorium is taking away an opportunity for a diverse workforce, as cannabis workers often come from the Latino community. They also cited the industry’s multimillion-dollar contribution to the economy: County staff estimated that this moratorium could cost the county $2.5 million in tax revenue.

Supervisor Greg Caput, of the Fourth District, argued that homeowners also contribute millions in tax dollars to the county.

“We have to understand that they are the people that own the homes, the people that actually rent the housing,” Caput said.

While growers argue that cannabis should be treated like any other crop, community members — and Friend — argued for a distinction.

“It is heavily regulated for a reason, and that’s because it is viewed as fundamentally different by both the local state and federal approach to this,” Friend said.

A cannabis plant
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Is it an ‘overcorrection?’

Friend and Caput, along with Supervisors Manu Koenig and Bruce McPherson, voted in favor of the moratorium, which needed four votes to pass. Only Ryan Coonerty opposed the measure.

“This change is just too big a leap,” Coonerty said in the meeting. “This seems like an overcorrection.”

The proposed ordinance originally recommended prohibiting licenses on commercial agriculture land within 500 feet of residentially zoned parcels, rather than structures. This would have decreased the land available to growers by about half (from 1462 to 689 parcels), according to a preliminary analysis.

But since Koenig proposed making the ordinance less restrictive by not granting licenses for parcels within 500 feet of “residential structures” instead, it was unclear at the time of reporting how many parcels will be affected.

The moratorium will hold for 45 days while the board considers more permanent changes to the Santa Cruz County Code regarding cannabis business licenses. A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 19 to consider an extension of the ordinance.